Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Eudcation --- What for?

What are the objectives of education? This is a very important question, though it is a question that has been discussed possibly hundreds of times in various parts of the world. Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives is possibly the most popular. He identifies six categories in the Cognitive domain, namely, Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation (see, for instance, Wikipedia), five categories in the Affective domain and the Psychomotor domain (for which he did not create categories, but others have --- see, for instance, While this is so, what I wish to address is a very different kind of question. I wish to ask: What does society expect to get by sending their children to educational institutions? In other words, what should be the ultimate objective of the education system? Should it be to prepare people for employment? Or should it be to impart knowledge about the world so that they can use the knowledge in life? Or should it be to make them aware of social and political histories and realities so that they can become good citizens? Or should it be to create sensitive and thinking individuals who can live peacefully in society and contribute to its well-being? Or ..... something else?

This is a question every society should ask and ensure that their educational system meets the objectives. This is very important since that decides the fate of the future generations. Though school education in Kerala is among the best in the country (if not the best) I have not seen a debate on this matter. Shalini Advani raise some important issues in The Hindu that are related to this, though her concern is about how corporate involvement in education and how education is becoming just a mechanical process and is losing its soul. I hope the questions I am attempting to address here at least partly includes the issues she has raised.

Education for Employment?

Should education prepare a person for employment? Of course, it should. A person needs an employment to earn his livelihood, and where else can he get the skills required for that? But that leaves the question of how. How should education prepare the person for his employment? This is a rather dificult question to answer, as I show now. How can this preparation be done? By giving him all the skills he require for the job? What job? During studies, there is no way a person can know what job (s)he is going to do, except in very few cases. So how can education prepare people for employment? Obviously, the special skills required for a particular job has to be provided by the employer and not by the education system. However, employment does not mean just doing some work. It also means living peacefully with your colleagues, helping each other, doing the work in a responsible and sincere manner, even fighting for employees rights. In other words, these are the very same skills one needs to live in a society. Therefore, a good education system should provide part of the skills required for any job.

Education for imparting knowledge?

Of course, education has to impart knowledge. That is one of the major functions of education. In schools, children need to learn a lot of things about the world so that they can use the knowledge in their day to day life. The question whether someone can impart knowledge, or whether children need to build knowledge on their own, is relevant but we shall not take it up. Another question is what this knowledge should be, or what all should be taught. I would say that whatever basic knowledge is required for life should be covered, and what exactly that consists of has to be decided by the particular society. This could vary from place to place and there is always the problem of to what extent local knowledge should be included in the syllabus. It may be somewhat difficult to arrive at an objective conclusion in this matter, but there could be an overall understanding in each region or state. In any case, acquisition of knowledge, such as science, mathematics, history and languages, is an essential part of education.

Education for creating good citizens?

Is the creation of good citizens one of the purposes of education? If yes, then how does one define a good citizen? I would say "Yes" to the first question. Since we live in a democracy, and a democracy is only as good as its citizens, we need good citizens if the democracy is to succeed. Citizens do have a very important role in a society and it is not just that of voting. While voting for the party or candidate you believe in is important, it is also important to make the right choice. The citizens need to be politically aware, and also capable of evaluating the good and bad points of the party and/or candidate. If this has to happen, they should be aware of the history of the land and the parties, the policies the parties have been pursuing and promise to pursue if elected, and consequences of different kinds of policies pursued by these and other parties in their land and abroad. They should also be capable of understanding the nuances of governance and of seeing through misleading statements that parties may make during election time. In addition to all this, citizens need to be capable of reacting to situations even after the elections and not just wait for the next elections. Thus, citizens should take upon themselves part of the responsibility of running the country. They obviously need a great amount of training for this. We shall not go into what the training should be since we are discussing something else.

Education for creating good individuals?

I believe that education should also help in creating sensitive, thinking and active individuals. This is certainly necessary for living in a society peacefully and for bringing individuals in the society closer together. Why sensitive? To understand the problems of others and to be able to empathise with them. Why thinking? To be able to identify problems and to come up with solutions, possibly innovative. Why active? To be able to get involved in social issues and be willing to work towards solving the problems. So, in my opinion, education should help in creating sensitive, thinking, active individuals.


So let us get back to the main question: What is the purpose of education? We find that it should prepare people for employment. But that, in turn, means that it should impart knowledge, it should help individuals to become good citizens, it should help to make them sensitive, thinking, active individuals (though the second point may be debated). All these qualities would help to prepare people for employment and for life. In fact, I think what would help people in life is largely what would help them to get employment. At least, that is how it should be.

Does our education system measure up to this? I do not think so. Our education system is primarily geared to enable the children to pass the examination. Whatever else the children gain is actually unintended. But isn't all this too tall an order for our education system? Perhaps. But let me look at it from another point. Very long ago, children used to learn the skills they required for living from their parents and peers. The extent of knowledge required, why the entire knowledge mankind had, was limited. Now things have changed dramatically. The extent of knowledge mankind has today is more than what a studious person can learn in a lifetime. And parents are often so busy with their own professions and/or with other matters that they are unable to impart any amount of education. In fact, that is probably how formal systems for education came up in society. Very often there are no other avenues for the children to acquire the capabilities discussed above. Therefore, our school system simply has to take upon itself these functions.

Let me conclude by mentioning another kind of concern that Shalini Advani discusses in her article. This is about the changing purposes of education with time. As she says, "...there is one crucial question which is insufficiently discussed. And the question is this: What is the purpose of education today? At various times, over the past 100 years, that question has been answered differently --- in colonial India, the official answer would have been, 'To create a cadre of clerks and officials to run the colonial state' while in a newly decolonised India, the official answer could be, 'To create a nationalist sensibility and the national citizen' ... Today, I suspect the official answer to the question about the purpose of education would be: 'To give people jobs.'" In its broadest sense, this is what would also help them lead a good life and be helpful to society. But when it is seen just as "giving people jobs", I fear the objectives could be limited to just acquiring a limited set of skills. This should never be so.

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